Researching The Dark Side of Global Photovoltaics


St Cross alumnus Carlo Inverardi-Ferri (DPhil Geography and the Environment, 2012) has been awarded a prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant. Worth 1.5 million euros, the money will support Carlo’s team in researching the dark sides of the global photovoltaic industry. 

Carlo said: “I am absolutely thrilled about the new lines of research and collaboration that this grant will enable, supporting an interdisciplinary team to carry out cutting-edge research on the political economy of illicit labour and climate change mitigation.” 

The photovoltaic industry has been booming in recent decades, largely because of increasing energy demands and commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A total cumulative capacity of 942 gigawatts (GW) was installed at the end of 2021. But while this sector represents one of the most established and promising renewable energy technologies today, little is known about the mechanisms underlying these phenomenal achievements. 

Carlo’s project maps solar panel production, consumption and disposal in China, Ghana, and India to give an overall snapshot of the photovoltaic industry from production through to waste. He explains that reports suggest significant labour violations have enabled this astonishing growth. Within this context, Ghana has witnessed a mineral rush for the supply of raw materials for Chinese manufacturing in recent years. At the same time, Ghana has also become the world’s dumpsite of so-called ‘solar waste’, that is discarded solar panels, as the country is one of the biggest importers of end-of-life photovoltaic modules globally. 

How can this analysis reveal new ways to provide clean and affordable energy for all? 

And so the research, carried out by Carlo and an interdisciplinary team of researchers, will focus on several core questions: ‘How do we explain the economic, political, and cultural processes linking illicit labour and ecological governance?’, ‘Which illicit labour regimes in mining and manufacturing processes sustain solar panel production?’, ‘How do informal energy markets work?’, ‘What are the social and environmental challenges raised by end-of-life photovoltaic modules?’, and ‘How can we understand the illicit-ecology nexus in light of these processes?’. 

This project seeks to answer: ‘How can this analysis reveal new ways to provide clean and affordable energy for all?’ 

Carlo is one of 408 researchers who have won this year’s European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants. The funding is worth in total €636 million and is part of the Horizon Europe programme, helping excellent younger scientists who have two to seven years’ experience after their PhDs, to launch their own projects, form their teams and pursue their most promising ideas. 

“It is a pleasure to see this new group of bright minds at the start of their careers, set to take their research to new heights,” said President of the European Research Council, Prof Maria Leptin. “We must encourage young researchers who are led by sheer curiosity to go after their most ambitious scientific ideas. Investing in them and their frontier research is investing in our future.” 

Congratulations, Carlo, on this exciting award! We look forward to learning more about the global photovoltaic industry!